Thursday, June 9, 2016


How does a straight white male poet in America, of 'a certain age,' find material in a world where inclusion of previously disenfranchised voices is the name of the game?

Arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas. At least according to Robert Pinsky, 2016 poet in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace.

Referencing Mark Twain, James Baldwin and WEB Dubois this week, Pinsky argued that every one of us has an opportunity – if we accept the limits of who we are -- to reach toward the ideas and concerns that constitute our common human birthright.

"My notion of culture, of the world, is based on that idea of a birthright that in James Baldwin’s words is “vast, connecting me to all that lives, and to everyone, forever,'” said Pinsky this week, as he prepared to appear at the birthplace for a rain-soaked celebration of poetry, with a couple of hundred young kids under a tent on the lawn of the Whitman house. "But as he says you cannot claim the birthright except through accepting the inheritance which is “particular, limited and limiting.”

“I speak as a white, lower-middle-class straight Jewish male from New Jersey, getting on in years. That inheritance is my avenue or window, it is the limitation through which I approach things. So if I try to talk about jazz, or slavery, I talk about it as who I am, with sensitivity regarding who I am not."

An apt dictum from a man who has been US Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, and who has remained a durable enough fellow in the shaky ground of 21rst century American poetry.

Another way to put it, says Pinsky, is the idea of Nature versus Nurture. Literature is rife with stories of children swapped at birth, tales which examine the delicate relationship between what we intrinsically bring with us into life at birth and how the experience of living shapes us.

Pinsky says he first gained his understanding of this as a teenager reading Mark Twain's Puddinhead Wilson. But he sees this message in the ideas of everyone from WEB Dubois to columns in the Atlantic Magazine.

Take Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of ‘Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus’ in the Atlantic. The point of Coates’ argument, says Pinsky, is that an individual in any culture around the world has the right to access the art and ideas of any other culture and call it their birthright. So too do we as Americans, says Pinsky.

Or to paraphrase WEB Dubois, Shakespeare is the Shakespeare of black Americans.

Dubois’ argument is worth examining more closely. In his famous 1903 essay Of The Training Of Black Men, he quotes Omar Khayaam: “Since the soul can fling the dust aside /And naked on the Air of Heaven ride,

          Were it not a Shame—were it not a Shame for him
        In this clay carcass crippled to abide?

In Dubois’ case, the clay carcass is a Jim Crow society ‘that held God created a tertium quid, and called it a Negro.’

Dubois recognized the existence – the necessity -- of that human impulse which propels us toward that condition in which 'all men, black, yellow, and white,' are in possession of a soul which seeks to feel 'through contact with living Nations and sleeping hordes a thrill of new life in the world.' Ignorance, he argued, 'can be met in but one way — by the breadth and broadening of human reason, by catholicity of taste and culture.'

So when Dubois writes "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not," he’s celebrating the acceptance of the inquiring human soul, whatever its ‘inheritance,’ by world culture itself. 

"Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil."

For a guy like Pinsky, in today's politically correct world that dwells on calling out privilege and entitlement, there’s an important message in Dubois’ assertion.

"I have as much access to Tolstoy to Balzac and Mozart as anybody in the world," he said. "That's my inheritance.” But Pinsky claims a birthright that goes beyond access to conventional historic voices of his inherited Western culture – to voices not intrinsically his own. Historic and contemporary.

“If I have a friend who is a gay Korean woman and practices Bahai, am I not at least one molecule influenced by that?" he asks. And then answers his own question. Yes, it's his birthright -- as it should be everybody's birthright -- to be empathetic to the world of ideas around us.

'So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil,' wrote Dubois.

What does that mean to a man like Robert Pinsky? To fling the dust aside. To seek beyond the limits of our inheritance, to our common birthright.

We're all entitled. Whether you're James Baldwin, WEB Dubois, or a gay Korean Bahai woman. Or a couple of hundred rain-soaked kids on Walt Whitman’s lawn. Or Puddinhead Wilson, for that matter.

All of us, arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas. 


You have been quoted as having said that poetry is a ‘vocal art,’ but not necessarily a performative art. Could you elaborate on the differences please? Also, how do you view the advent of Spoken Word, Hip Hop and Performance poetry -- as a force for ‘democratization’ and ‘contemporarization’ of poetry? As an erosion of the art and craft of poetry? As some combination of the two?
RP: Intensely vocal, and not performative in the sense I mean: the videos Sylvia Plath’s poem in Seph Rodney’s voice, Langston Hughes’ poem in Pov Chin’s voice, Whitman in John Doherty’s voice, Julia de Burgos’ poem, in the original and Spanish, in Glaizma Perez-Silva’s voice— that is poetry as itself, a vocal art. Roethke’s “The Waking” was written with Theodore Roethke’s inward and actual voice: decades later, it lives in the voice of a school custodian outside Chicago.

Performance is a great, noble category of art. So is poetry. For me, the test for being poetry is that the work does not depend on a particular artist’s delivery: no great actor, not the author herself, just any person who loves the poem and chooses to give voice to its words, in imagination, inwardly, or actually.

A performance may be great art, of course. But poetry . . . well, I recognize it when I look at (and listen to!) those Favorite Poem Project videos.

I’ve heard your early work was influenced by the “flow and tension” of jazz and that you especially appreciate jazz saxophonists Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Dexter Gordon. You’ve mentioned how improvisatory music is at once about planning and about surprise. Does the influence of jazz continue to permeate your work—and, if it does, how? In what ways (and why) do you think this very American art form—jazz—continues to inform and inspire American poets?
RP: Yes. American music of many different kinds gets vitality from origins in the blues. And it’s hard to imagine an American writer who doesn’t listen to music. 
On my CD’s with Laurence Hobgood, PoemJazz and PoemJazz II: House Hour (from Circumstantial Productions), I hope our collaborative, improvised performances reveal the musical roots and elements in the poems— and, of course, that what we do is musical: not poetry reading with background music, a notion that strikes me as corny.

I have seen it become quite prevalent among many younger (and a few not so young) poets to appropriate lines from other poets into their own work with or without acknowledging it. Can you discuss the nuances of allusion, appropriation, intertextual dialogue and stealing?
RP: All art is at some level translation. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson all incorporate bits of quotation. Technology has made it into a genre of music. In contemporary work, sometimes, the melodic power of the borrowed element puts to shame the slackness of the context.
Culture is always a melding of impurities, I think. Terms like “appropriation” and “assimilation” are inadequate. Irving Berlin’ wrote “White Christmas.” Roman soldiers shacked up with local women in Gaul and together they improvised the Creole tongue, French.

As the current generation of American youth utilizes more “settings” of language than any previous generation (twitter, email, text, academic, colloquial, page, stage), have you found that their poetry capitalizes on this linguistic flexibility?
RP: For me, in poetry, the voice is primary. And the voice is on a human scale. Maybe an art based on the single human voice offers respect for the dignity of the individual? All these technological and institutional avenues toward that destination are welcome.

Do you consider the proliferation of online poetry journals and self-published poetry manuscripts a step TOWARDS bridging the gulf between community-based, local poetry circles and the MFA-driven, academic stronghold on American poetry OR as an exacerbating, chasm-widening development?
RP: Hundreds of sonnet sequences were published in England in the 1590’s. Hundreds! All imitating Sir Philip Sidney’s unpublished but pirated imitation of Petrarca. Out of that proliferation, most of it forgotten, we got some wonderful poems by the likes of William Shakespeare, Michael Drayton, Fulke Greville. The more the merrier, in other words.

(Interview questions were drawn from suggestions solicited from a panel of individuals active in the poetry community today, including Lenny Dellarocca, Veronia Golos, Chuck Joy, Ron Kolm, Linda Lerner, Matt Pasca, Robert Peake
, Kevin Rabas, Walter Raubicheck, and  John Roche)

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